Westar Energy is in the middle of a $325 million construction project that will slash the thousands of tons of pollutants spewing from the Lawrence Energy Center every year.
The project, started in 2009, is designed to reduce the fine particle, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions coming from two of three power plants’ coal-burning units. These pollutants have been linked to respiratory illnesses, haze, smog and acid rain.
This spring, Westar entered into the heart of the work at Unit 5, which typical generates 64 percent of the plant’s 585 megawatts of electricity. It will be shut down for 60 days. Crews are working to complete the construction before Westar heads into the demanding summer season. More than 350 workers are on site daily.
More than four decades ago, the Lawrence Energy Center led the country in state-of-the-art environment technology. In 1968, Unit 4 was the first generating unit in the country to be retrofitted with wet scrubbers, which remove sulfur dioxide. Three years later, Unit 5 was the first newly built coal-burning unit that installed a wet scrubber. In the late 1970s, the scrubbers on both units were replaced with the next generation of equipment, which are the ones that are being upgraded today.
Throughout the process, Westar is working with Black & Veatch, the same company that designed the wet scrubbers installed on the units more than 40 years ago.
The latest rounds of upgrades are in response to the Regional Haze Agreement Westar reached with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in 2007 and 2008. The agreement, which utilities and states across the country reached, was aimed at protecting air quality in national parks and wilderness areas.
And the Lawrence Energy Center isn’t the only power plant in the area that needs to reduce its emissions based on that agreement. Large-scale projects are also under way at the Jeffrey Energy Center and the La Cygne power plant.
“You are not going to turn the lights on one day, and all of sudden the air is a lot cleaner,” said Tom Gross, who is the chief of air monitoring and planing for the KDHE’s Bureau of Air. “But all across the country, improvements are being made on a gradual basis.”
Along with meeting the Regional Haze Agreement, Gross said, the upgrades could help the Kansas City region’s ozone levels. For the past three years, the region has narrowly met the EPA’s ozone standards.
“On days when winds are blowing out of the right direction, (regional power plants) are impacting Kansas City and Wichita,” Gross said. “If we reduce emissions, we will see improvements in air quality on those days in these cities.”
The upgrades will also help Westar reach compliance with the federal Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which calls for power plants to significantly reduce their sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.
Last fall, Westar and the state of Kansas sued in federal court saying the rule would require hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades to comply by the law’s Jan. 1 deadline. In December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit stayed the implementation of the rule. The court plans to hear oral arguments on the case in April.
“We are still reviewing the ramifications,” said Paul Wallen, who is Westar’s executive director of construction projects. Wallen noted that the $325 million worth of upgrades should mean that no significant additional work would be needed to comply with the new law.
“We are constantly watching environmental landscape to ensure we are in compliance,” Wallen said.
Since Unit 5 produces more than half of the energy for the Lawrence plant, which supplies electricity to 15 percent of Westar’s 687,000 customers, some of the upgrades have to be done when demand for electricity is at its lowest.
“We are able to meet the demand with other power plants and take advantage of temperate weather in the spring and fall,” Wallen said of how Westar manages when Unit 5 is shut down.
Next fall, Westar plans to take Unit 4 offline for 60 days so it can perform many of the same environmental upgrades. The company hopes to finish the project in 2013.
Already completed at Unit 5 is a new building, nearly nine stories high, that holds a fabric filtration system. The system is made up of thousands of bags that are 10 inches around and 30 feet long. It’s a similar concept as vacuum cleaner bags, only about a million times bigger.
The flue gas from the coal-fire plant’s combustion process runs through the fabric filtration system. The suspended fabric bags then collect particulate matter from the flue gas.
Nearby is a large concrete silo that holds about seven days’ worth of the particulate matter, which is collected, hauled away and repurposed into products used in concrete and road materials.
The building to house a fabric filtration system at Unit 4 is expected to be built this summer.
In 2011, particulate matter emissions were reported at 1,009 tons at Unit 5 and 241 tons at Unit 4. With the upgrades, that is expected to drop to 135 tons at Unit 5 and 37 tons at Unit 4.
The environmental upgrades also include rebuilding the two units’ scrubber systems, which use a water and limestone mixture to remove sulfur dioxide from flue gas. Sulfur dioxide emissions are expected to drop from 1,437 tons a year at Unit 5 and 168 tons a year at Unit 4 to 435 tons and 123 tons.
Wallen said residents won’t see much of a difference with the new scrubbers and noted that steam will still flow out of the plant’s stacks.
“From an appearance point of view, it will look the same,” he said.
The upgrades will also reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by upgrading the burning systems in all three of the energy center’s generating units. The new burning system will mix fuel and air more efficiently, which will reduce the amount of nitrogen oxide.
Westar consumers have already been paying for the $325 million worth of upgrades, and others like them throughout Westar’s territory, through an environmental rider that was tacked onto electric bills in 2005.